Eric Sibul on the history of replacing railroads with roads: a disaster

A review of: Sibul, Eric. 26 Apr 2013. Transportation Readings for American Conservatives – How did we get in such a Mess? The American Conservative.

My main problem with this article is that it heaps all the blame on liberals, so I’ve tried to cut out the right-wing propaganda and focus on why getting rid of our railroad system was such a huge mistake.  He recommends you read these 9 books in the order they appear below.

Albro Martin. 1971. Enterprise denied; origins of the decline of American railroads, 1897-1917.

Albro Martin. 1992. Railroads Triumphant: The Growth, Rejection, and Rebirth of a Vital American Force.

While the federal government assisted the construction of private railroads with land grants, this was not without a price as railroads had to carry government cargoes (mails and military supplies) and personnel at reduced cost. Railroads also paid income taxes and property taxes, perhaps making them the only form of transportation to be profitable to federal and state governments.

American railroads were quite amazing. They maintained their own infrastructure including major urban passenger terminals, provided for their own security with their own police forces, provided health care for their own employees with their own hospitals and surgeons, cleaned up their own accidents, and even maintained a cadre of transportation specialists at their own expense to stand ready for military mobilization during national emergencies.

Stephen Goddard. 1996. Getting There: The Epic Struggle between Rail and Rail in the American Century.

Helen Leavitt. 1970. Superhighway – Superhoax.

Robert A. Caro. 1975. The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York.

The rise to primacy of the petroleum powered motor vehicle in America was in part due to the destruction of privately owned and operated electric interurban and street railways. The CEO of General Motors (GM), Alfred P. Sloan, Jr., came to the conclusion in 1923 that the American automobile market was saturated – those who wanted cars already owned them. As a result, from the 1920s to the 1950s GM used its sizeable financial muscle through a Byzantine network of subsidiaries and holding companies to buy privately owned electric railway systems throughout the United States and systematically dismantle them, forcing former users no other alternative but to purchase automobiles. While GM and their co-conspirators, Standard Oil, Mack Trucks and Firestone Tire Company, were caught red-handed at this, they received only token fines.

General James A. Van Fleet.  1956. Rail Transport and the Winning of War.

The federal interstate highway system was perhaps the greatest American defense fraud of the twentieth century. According to Leavitt, labeling the interstate highway system as vital to national defense “was simply a ‘sweetening’ device to gain support for the program back in 1956.”

Highway transportation was actually more vulnerable in an atomic attack and interstate highway construction for defense purposes was counter to the transportation lessons learned in the Korean War where Van Fleet was commander of the Eighth Army. Both sides in the Korean conflict were heavily reliant on rail transport. Despite strategic bombing, the North Koreans and Chinese were able to keep their railroads running, supplying new offensives against the United Nations forces.

Robert Goralski et al. 1978. Oil & War: How the Deadly Struggle for Fuel in WWII Meant Victory or Defeat.

This book clearly shows the overall strategic stupidity of developing a national transportation system increasingly dependent on the consumption of petroleum. By the 1950s, the United States was an importer rather than an exporter of petroleum, increasingly dependent on distant sea lanes that could be disrupted as shown by the Suez Crisis of 1956. The virtue of rail transport from a strategic perspective has been (and still is) that it is about three times more energy efficient than motor transportation. Railroads could also be powered electrically from alternative sources such as coal, hydro, or nuclear power.

James Howard Kunstler. 1994. The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America’s Man-Made Landscape  

Kunstler describes the long term effects of the destruction of privately owned rail mass transit systems…that led to the destruction of the traditional sense of community on a large scale. It also shows that a national economic policy based on continuously encouraging construction of patches of McMansions connected to the interstate highway system is not sustainable or fiscally sound.

Paul M. Weyrich, et al. 2009. Moving Minds: Conservatives and Public Transportation  

This book has some ideas about what to do.


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